Gail Gruenwald’s style of dealing with oil and gas and clean water issues sometimes frustrates her peers in the non-profit community. Alleged threats, after all, require immediate action. But Gruenwald, executive director for the Petoskey-based Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, says having all the facts is crucial before acting on a supposed problem.
The organization she leads makes its indelible mark on the waters of Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. The region is a summer haven for thousands of vacationers and cottage owners, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one million residents. Laced with 3,000 miles of rivers and streams, the four-county area harbors a dramatic Great Lakes shoreline, more than 300,000 acres of wetlands, some of Michigan’s largest inland lakes, plus 1,800 or so smaller lakes.
“It’s a lot of water to cover,” affirms Gruenwald, who was hired in 1983 as the staff attorney before becoming director in 1987. “We try to develop positions based on sound science and avoid positions not supported by science and fact. We don’t say ‘The sky is falling’ unless it is. We can be very frustrating to other environmental non-profits.”
Tip of the Mitt was founded in 1979, initially as a coalition of lake associations. Federal money was available for water quality monitoring and the council members worked with researchers from the University of Michigan Biological Station, in Pellston. There were just 10 members at the time.
That changed in 1983, when a board member recommended having citizens and riparian owners involved in the organization’s forward progress. The idea was met with support, Gruenwald says. The council today has 2,500 members, 11 staff and 200 volunteers. Its 2015 budget of close to $1 million is oceans larger than the $1,200 budget it began with in 1980.
“That was a large shift,” she notes. “Other watershed councils are quasi-governmental organizations with government officials on their board of directors. We’re not. We chose to have individuals as members and as board members.”
Tip of the Mitt staff tackle issues important to its membership, largely riparian property owners. Funded by membership pledges, donations and grants, they conduct and lead water quality monitoring efforts, oversee large-scale shoreline or river restoration projects, develop watershed management plans and educate the public on myriad of threats to waterways. The council has worked closely, for instance, with area marinas to get them certified under Michigan’s Clean Marina program.
Council volunteers help by monitoring area beaches for dead birds that succumb to avian botulism. They document invasive species like purple loosestrife, a beautiful, ornamental plant imported to the U.S. in the 1800s, which is capable of crowding out native aquatic plants in wetland complexes. Volunteers also gather water quality data in many area lakes or streams and form an advocacy network if a call to action comes.
“Getting rid of invasive species is very expensive,” Gruenwald explains. “We spend a lot of time and money working with lake groups to assess various waters and eradicate them. Storm water is our second big challenge. None of the communities up here are required to treat it; they are too small. So, most of it is flushed into the waterways and we work with communities about the things they can do.”
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Award-winning writer and BLUE “Undercurrents” columnist Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.